Episode 23: Sugar Flower Artistry with Jacqueline Butler
As paper florists, we ultimately found our artistic medium in paper. Jacqueline Butler of Petalsweet Cakes found her perfect medium in gum paste. Based in San Diego, California, but internationally renowned, Jacqueline specializes in creating and teaching sugar flower art. She teaches around the globe and is the author of “Modern Sugar Flowers Vol 1” (which Jessie owns and believes every paper florist should have on their shelf).
In it, she generously shares her experience, tips, and tricks. Her style is forever tasteful and stylized; her techniques innovative and applicable across disciplines (like our’s!). In addition to being a generous teacher of sugar artistry, she is also incredibly personable and humble.
Now, Jacqueline is publishing her second book, “Modern Sugar Flowers Vol 2”, available for preorder on Amazon UK, Amazon US, and Amazon CA. It will be released on November 1st in the UK and November 19th in North America. We are so excited to get our hands on it!
Listen to Jacqueline as she talks about how she go started making cakes and sugar art, how she found her artistic style in the gum paste medium, and her new book, “Modern Sugar Flowers Vol 2.”
First, let’s get to know Jacqueline:
1. Who is Jacqueline Butler?
Sugar flower artist, former wedding cake designer, baker, author, dog lover, red wine and burrito lover (not together!), trail runner, world traveler, and wife to my wonderful husband Keith!
2. How did you get started in sugar art?
I had a great dollhouse when I was young and used to buy miniature kits and make all the furniture and accessories for it. I also modeled tiny plates of food and desserts with polymer clay for the dolls’ kitchen and dining room tables. I think this is where I learned to love using my hands and making little things.
As an adult when I was baking and making cakes as a hobby, I found a small book that featured simple sugar flowers, and I was immediately drawn to the art form! As I learned more about sugarcraft, I was fortunate to take classes with a few great artists I admired (Colette Peters, Scott Woolley, Nicholas Lodge, and Ron Ben Israel) and I learned a strong foundation in sugar flower making techniques.
This gave me the confidence to try making sugar flowers on my own, and over time these flowers became the signature style for my business, Petalsweet Cakes.
3. Tell us about Petalsweet Cakes.
Officially founded in 2005, I created my wedding cake business after being a longtime hobby baker outside my day job at a national non-profit organization. I finally decided to make the leap to building a business and knew I wanted to focus on wedding cakes with sugar flowers.
I created cakes full-time for about 6 years, servicing San Diego and a bit in the Bay Area where I’m originally from. Around that time, I began getting a lot of inquiries from colleagues in the industry who wanted to buy my sugar flowers or learn how to make them. I started teaching a few classes and sharing the results on Flickr and Facebook (remember this was before Instagram!).
Because of social media, I had a lot of interest from lovely folks all over the world and started saying yes to invitations to teach overseas. I was enjoying the teaching so much I cut back on making cakes, and really the rest is history! I rarely make any cakes these days, spending almost all my time developing content and focusing on instruction.
4. How would you define your style? How did you find your artistic style? How has your style evolved to what it is today?
When I started my business, I was making stylized sugar flowers in soft pastels. My “formula” was to mix them with green and white for a fresh, modern look and feel. Everything was light and soft. The flowers also came together quickly because they didn’t need much work to finish before going on a cake.
I interpreted flowers in my own way, getting rid of parts I didn’t find pretty or useful, or that took too long to create. I considered sugar flowers a “confection” since they were going to be placed on a cake, so my style was not botanically correct. Much of my style was born from functionality. I wanted to create (and teach) sugar flowers that were achievable and profitable for someone who was running a business, including me!
There are some incredible sugar flower artists out there who make truly jaw-dropping sugar flowers. I am blown away by their talent. Not everyone can replicate that type of work, nor can they make money doing it. So, it’s always been important to me to have a balance between pretty and cost-effective, and I think my students have appreciated that.
Today, with the constant exposure to IG and other social media, I can’t help but be inspired and influenced by so many amazing real flower florists AND paper flower artists such as yourselves (Quynh and Jessie). The trends in cake design have been shifting towards more realism in sugar floristry and towards fine art mediums and textures for cake finishes.
The result is the cake industry has been beautifully elevated, which makes me so happy, but that can also mean much more time and work for makers to meet those levels of artistry. So, it’s both exciting and stressful at the same time. I’ve been expanding my color palette to include deeper and brighter colors, and I’ve been creating a lot of new flowers or re-tooling older flowers to include more details.
All while still trying to balance the time involved in making them. I also started using darker backgrounds for some of my photography, which initially made me nervous. In my head, I thought I had to stay with soft pastels on a light and bright background to fit my brand.
I thought anything else would be rejected by my students and followers. But I couldn’t have been more wrong! I’ve felt incredibly encouraged by so many lovely messages and comments about the changes, and I’m feeling more open to trying new things than at any other time before in my sugarcraft career.
5. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced during your career?
Being a creative person running a business (even with a lot of leadership experience from my previous career) has been very challenging. I don’t have a lot of natural business acumen and it’s hard for me to see the big picture. My strength is in the details.
I’ve struggled with all aspects of my business, from finance and growth to marketing and now scaling. I’m grateful to get great help from my brilliant husband and a few wonderful mentors, but I’m still very much a work in progress. I spend a lot of time learning things that have nothing to do with sugar flowers, and I’m only recently learning to welcome it instead of fighting it!
I also really struggled when I first began teaching internationally. I didn’t know anyone doing the same, so I had to figure it all out myself. I was thrilled for the opportunities to teach in Australia, Europe, and Asia, but there were so many other things to figure out beyond the actual time spent teaching the class.
Preparation and organization at home, the exhaustion of travel, schlepping tools and equipment, cultural differences, and not having access to similar supplies were all part of the adventure. And while difficult at the time, they did hone my problem-solving skills quickly and forced me to become better at asking for exactly what I needed and standing firm in those expectations.
6. How have you made yourself stand out in the crowd of other sugar artists?
My brand is well established within the industry, but a lot of that is simply some luck mixed with good timing. I created Petalsweet at a time when there weren’t many known sugar flower artists in the world, and access to them or information about learning sugar flowers was very limited. It was a great time to build a brand.
Also, my style is very clean and achievable, so I think a lot of artists starting out find my work a good starting point for them. I’m one of the more “seasoned” sugar artists now, and a lot of the younger artists today kindly point to me as their initial inspiration when they started their businesses. It’s very kind, and the OG status isn’t lost on me, ha ha!
I do my best to continue to work on the content that reflects what I think is pretty and what I think students will enjoy making for their cakes and clients. I also pride myself on being kind and helpful to anyone who is looking for information or wants to learn more about sugarcraft, and I think that goes a long way. I was fortunate to have a few amazing artists help me, in the same way, years ago – it’s a great honor and pleasure to pay it forward.
7. What advice would you give to an artist who is starting out today? And one that is about to give up?
Don’t try to be everything to everyone and pay attention to the art you enjoy creating most. When you are starting out, many times you must take on a wide range of orders to pay the bills, but that doesn’t mean you have to do those things forever.
One of my favorite exercises with my students is to give them a blank 4 tier wedding cake and tell them to decorate it however they wish. And to pay attention to the decorations they choose. It can tell them a lot about a direction they might want to pursue, as well as the types of cakes they DON’T want to make.
If someone wanted to give up, I’d suggest stepping away for a break, and then trying a completely different art form. I always enjoy my work more when I’ve exercised or spent an extended amount of time outdoors. A break could mean a vacation, or a hiatus, or both. Everyone needs something different to stay motivated. Trying a different art form also helps your brain problem solve in new ways. And getting your hands on different textiles can spark new creative joy.
I’d also ask them if the reason they wanted to give up was founded in comparing themselves to someone else. I’m guilty of doing it and it always makes me feel poorly about myself and my work. It’s not easy to get out of that headspace, so the more you can focus on your own path the better.
Easier said than done these days when we are surrounded by beautiful photos of outstanding work. It’s hard – you must focus on what is in front of you and make that meaningful. And the more you can enjoy the process of creating over results, the better.
8. Tell us about your books, Modern Sugar Flowers and MSF Volume 2.
Both books are sugar flower how-to instructional manuals with added inspirational photos and cake projects so readers can learn how to use their flowers once they have made them. Filled with tips and techniques that have worked well for me all throughout my business.
Writing a book was a longtime dream of mine, and I was thrilled for the opportunity to share my processes for making and finishing flowers with the folks at David & Charles. And to do it twice! Turns out my brain is good at breaking things down into achievable steps, so the technical writing came easier than I expected. The cake projects and the creative design for all the flower chapters were quite challenging for me, but I loved the process of styling the photos.
The books are a true set. We carried over the fonts and layouts to the second book so they can sit side by side on the shelf. The flowers and cake projects in Volume 2 are different from the first book but are all broken down the same way. The only overlap from book 1 to book 2 is the hydrangea and filler flowers which are staples we use in many cake designs. We wanted to include them so the second book could stand on its own, and readers could learn my arranging skills without having to start with the first book.
It’s been an incredible amount of work over several years now, and a lot of highs and lows. But I love hearing from students who have used the first book and seeing them get excited about making sugar flowers has been amazing. I hope the second book is well received and that everyone enjoys making the new flowers!
9. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
Just so grateful to both of you for inviting me to talk with you on your podcast, and to share the news about my new book, thank you so much! We didn’t have a chance to chat about the tools and processes that might be shared across our two mediums, so I’d love to come back another time to talk about it! Thank you again!
Jacqueline’s books are now available for purchase worldwide!
Modern Sugar Flowers Vol 1
Modern Sugar Flowers Vol 2